The Jazz Singer at 90, Part XII (Final thoughts)

3

Happy heavenly 99th birthday to my favorite writer, Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn! May his memory be for a beautiful, eternal blessing.

So much was lost, due to the film industry’s rush to follow the new at the expense of the old. While I’m glad sound-on-film technology exists, a middle ground would’ve been better.

Moviemaking took a huge step backwards when talkies became the law of the land. Cameras could no longer move as far; microphones picked up every little thing; actors couldn’t move far from the microphone; and most films became like stage plays, limited to a very small set, with nonstop (often bad) dialogue.

Sound was a huge boon for actors with great voices. Some, like Ronald Colman and William Powell, had been successful in silent pictures, but took their careers to a whole new level with their voices.

Other actors, like W.C. Fields, had started in silents, but needed sound to rise to success, with a trademark voice giving their characters a whole new boost.

Sound also was a huge boon for my belovèd Laurel and Hardy. Their voices matched their characters perfectly. I mentally hear their voices when I watch their silents. No other voices would’ve felt right on them.

Other actors never could’ve succeeded in silents, regardless of their talent. Can you picture the Marx Brothers as silent comedians? Even Harpo’s character only works when everyone around him speaks. Watching the lost Humorisk (1925) would be a very surreal experience!

Many actors who rose to stardom in the sound revolution came from Broadway and vaudeville. Actors like Cagney and Bogart needed to use their voices to fully bring their characters to life, and couldn’t have been as successful with just pantomime. Their voices made them who they were.

Sound enabled genres like gangster movies and musicals. While both ended up kind of overdone, to the exclusion of other worthy genres, those kinds of stories couldn’t have worked in silence. These genres were also just what Americans in the Great Depression needed for escapist entertainment. They certainly could no longer relate to things like flapper stories.

Sound also made necessarily dialogue-heavy stories more practical. Sometimes a story can’t be properly, fully understood without reliance on dialogue to convey important information and establish characters. I dislike silents with too many intertitles, esp. when they’re huge chunks of text.

However, a longer transitional period could’ve alleviated some issues. If more time had been spent working out the technological kinks, while still making hybrids and silents, the switch-over would’ve gone so much more smoothly.

In general, people who waited a few years, instead of jumping right in to play with the shiny new toy, had better début talkies. There’s less of a “Look, we can talk!” vibe. Most early talkies are so dated and creaky next to the aesthetically superior silents of the late Twenties.

Early talkies are hit and miss for the same reason so many 1910s feature-length films are. It’s a new medium still finding its voice, without years of history to fall back on for help. Even talented actors can’t save some of these films.

Many great late silents bombed, or were critically panned, because talkies were more in demand, no matter how poor the quality. Yet many late silents have aged far better than most early talkies.

Intertitle writers and accompanying musicians lost their jobs; directors could no longer speak during filming; and playing mood-setting music during filming had to stop.

So many filmmakers have forgotten how to tell a good story without constant talk. Just picture one of your favorite cinematic battle scenes. Can’t you easily understand what’s going on without the soldiers stopping to chat? Isn’t there greater emotional intensity because it’s all conveyed without words?

Many good horror movies also create a creepy, foreboding mood without saying a word. It’s all about visuals and atmosphere, not people gabbing about a monster on the loose, or how scared they are.

If TJS hadn’t been the catalyst, another film would’ve done it eventually, perhaps with the same results. It’s impossible to say if a later revolution would’ve allowed room at the table for both types of films, or if sound would’ve been dismissed as just another trend after a few years.

Hollywood still doesn’t have the greatest track record of accurately depicting religious Judaism, but TJS represented an important, positive step forward (in spite of falsely calling Judaism a “race”).

TJS represents a poignant, simultaneous ending and beginning, a mixing of excitement and uncertainty. “That’s all there is to life, just a little laugh, a little tear.”

Advertisements

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part VIII (A miraculously successful première and reception)

3

In loving memory of George Harrison, who left the material world 16 years ago today.

Sadly, none of the four Warner Bros. were able to attend the triumphant première of TJS on 6 October 1927. They’d been running themselves ragged with this film, since so much was riding upon its success. All this nonstop work took its toll on Sam’s health, and at the end of September, he was hospitalized.

Sam was diagnosed with a sinus infection, abscessed teeth, and a mastoid brain infection. After four surgeries, Sam fell into a coma. On 5 October, he fell victim to pneumonia caused by sinusitis, osteomyelitis, and subdural and epidural abscesses.

The other three brothers had to go home to California for the funeral, missing their flagship New York theatre’s première.

Samuel Louis Warner (né Schmuel Wonsal or Wonskolaser), 10 August 1887–5 October 1927

The première date was no accident. It was chosen deliberately because it was Yom Kippur, and TJS revolves so closely around that holiday.

Warner Bros. had been in deep financial straits for years. Taking on Vitaphone sound-on-film technology had only added another huge, risky financial burden. If this film flopped, it would be curtains.

Though TJS is, contrary to popular misconception, at least 75% silent, audiences still weren’t accustomed to hearing real sound during a film. This wasn’t just a synchronized soundtrack or sound effects, but actual human speech.

The audience applauded after every song, and went particularly wild after the conversation between Jack and his mother. By the end of the film, they’d gone wild, chanting Jolson’s name as they gave a standing ovation.

It was a miracle there wasn’t a single misstep during the synchronization of the film and discs. Had the projectionist not cued up any of those fifteen discs with the fifteen reels exactly in synch, Warner Bros. would’ve been both publicly and financially humiliated.

TJS met with predominantly rave reviews, in the mainstream press as well as the Jewish and African–American communities. While some reviewers noted it was more of a showcase for Jolson and/or a new technology, they nevertheless praised that aspect.

Had George Jessel or Eddie Cantor played the lead, things would’ve been so different. As talented and popular as they were, only Jolson could’ve carried it the way it needed to be. His superstardom, charisma, background, and larger than life personality elevated it beyond a B-movie into something really special.

This was truly one of those cases where someone was born to play a certain role, write a certain book, paint a certain painting, or record a certain album. While someone else could’ve done a competent job with the same material, it just wouldn’t be the same.

TJS was Warner Bros.’ biggest hit to date, only surpassed a year later by the all-talking The Singing Fool (also starring Jolson). Though many theatres weren’t wired for any kind of sound, and thus had to play an entirely silent version, it still proved itself as a big earner.

Film scholars and historians estimate TJS made $3.9 million ($126 million as of 2005) in the U.S., and $2.6 million worldwide, for an overall profit of $1,196,750. Warner Bros. had been saved.

In spite of its success, TJS was ruled ineligible for nomination by the first Academy Awards. As a partly-talking picture, it would’ve been unfair competition against the all-silent pictures.

TJS has been referenced and parodied countless times in popular media over the years, and was remade in 1952 (with Danny Thomas and Peggy Lee), 1959 (as a TV movie with Jerry Lewis), and 1980 (with Neil Diamond, Laurence Olivier, and Lucie Arnaz).

Jolson reprised the role in a radio adaptation on 10 August 1936 and 2 June 1947 on Lux Radio Theater.

In 1996, the National Film Registry chose TJS for preservation, based upon it being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” In 1998, the American Film Institute voted it the 90th best American film of all time.

But of course, the film’s greatest impact was in hastening the talkie revolution and sounding the death knell of the silent era.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part VII (The making of the film)

5

Had history unfolded differently, this man, George Albert Jessel, and not Al Jolson, would’ve played the lead in The Jazz Singer. One of Broadway’s most popular leading men, he was asked to star in the film adaptation of the play, and signed to a contract with Warner Bros.

4 June 1926, Warner Bros. acquired the play’s rights. In February 1927, Motion Picture World magazine ran a story announcing Jessel’s starring role, and that filming would begin the first of May.

When TJS was reconceived as a sound film, Jessel demanded a larger salary or new contract, which the struggling studio couldn’t afford. They still owed him money for three other films (all now lost), and couldn’t afford to produce any film with a major star.

Jessel also was outraged by the film’s ending, which differed from that of the play. He didn’t want to do that, with or without money.

Popular entertainer Eddie Cantor (né Edward Israel Itzkowitz) was offered the role next, but declined. He was a friend of Jessel’s, and felt sure the difference of opinion could be worked out. Cantor offered his assistance, but wasn’t invited to the negotiations.

By hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence), Al Jolson, whose early life was the inspiration for the story, was then offered the role, and accepted. Jessel may have been a very popular leading man on Broadway, but Jolson was a superstar at the height of his popularity.

Jessel and Jolson were also friends, but after Jolson accepted the role, they didn’t speak for a long time. It felt like a betrayal, after Jessel had confided in him about his problems with the studio. Jolson signed the contract without telling Jessel about his plans beforehand.

26 May 1927, Jolson signed a contract for eight weeks, starting July. His salary was $75,000 ($1,034,052 today).

Also cast were:

Warner Oland (né Johan Verner Ölund) as Cantor Rabinowitz. He was a Swedish-born actor best-known for playing Asian roles, in an era when it was common, de facto practice for white actors to play characters of other ethnicities.

Eugenie Besserer as Sara Rabinowitz. She usually played maternal roles.

May McAvoy as Mary Dale. Probably her best-known other role is Esther in Ben-Hur.

Otto Lederer (in the middle) as busybody gossip Moisha Yudelson.

Fellow Pittsburgher Bobby Gordon as 13-year-old Jakie Rabinowitz. He later became a film and TV director, and was the last surviving cast member of TJS.

Cantor Yossele (Josef) Rosenblatt as himself. He was considered the greatest cantor of his era, with a sweeping career spanning multiple cities and countries.

Richard Tucker (far left) as producer Harry Lee. He was the first official member of the Screen Actors Guild.

The synchronized musical performances are, in order:

“My Gal Sal” (dubbed by an unknown singer as Bobby Gordon lip-synchs)
“Waiting for the Robert E. Lee” (a popular 1912 song), also dubbed as Bobby Gordon lip-synchs
“Kol Nidre” (dubbed by Joseph Diskay with Warner Oland lip-synching)
“Dirty Hands, Dirty Face” (Jolson)
“Toot, Toot, Tootsie (Goo’ Bye)” (Jolson)
“Kaddish” (Cantor Rosenblatt)
“Blue Skies” (Jolson)
“Kol Nidre” (Jolson)
“Mother of Mine, I Still Have You” (Jolson)
“My Mammy” (Jolson)

After “Blue Skies,” there’s a brief ad-libbed conversation between Jack and his mother. This comes to an abrupt halt when Cantor Rabinowitz enters and shouts, “STOP!” The dialogue then reverts back to intertitles.

The sound sequences were shot at a different speed from the normal silent sequences. If you watch very closely, you can pick up on the differences, particularly when one stops and the other starts.

The first time I saw TJS, I was jolted by these sound sequences. While I of course knew they’d be there, it’s a very uncanny, surreal feeling for a silent film to suddenly break into sound. I image that’s what it felt like to 1927 audiences.

The Winter Garden and Lower East Side scenes were shot on location. Though filming began in June, the Vitaphone sequences were mostly saved for late August, since they were so technologically complex. On 23 September, Motion Picture News reported production was complete.

The budget was $422,000 ($5.76 million today). This was a colossal sum for the financially struggling Warner Bros., who typically didn’t spend more than $250,000. Only the John Barrymore films Don Juan and The Sea Beast (both 1926) had been more expensive.

To finance TJS, Harry Warner stopped drawing his salary, moved his family to a smaller apartment, and pawned his wife’s jewelry. The brothers worked themselves ragged on the production, since a lot was riding on both this film and Vitaphone being successful.

This costly experiment paid off big-time, though Sam Warner sadly died just before the grand première.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part V (Let’s talk about blackface)

2

One of the reasons I was so annoyed and disappointed with The Rap Critic and his annoying girlfriend Lady Jess’s review of The Jazz Singer was because it was little more than one huge rant against blackface. They went total SJW and unfairly applied contemporary views to a radically different era.

Rap Critic admitted Al Jolson wasn’t a racist at all and that he did a lot of good things for the African–American community, but in the next breath said he didn’t care, because ZOMG, blackface! They “shamed” pretty much every major entertainer for using blackface, even once ever, in the pre-Civil Rights era.

I fully admit I was really nervous the first time I saw this film, knowing there was going to be blackface. Having been born in 1979, I grew up in a much different era, and also have lived the majority of my life in an area that’s about half-African–American.

A lot of the African–American kids at my awful junior high were much nicer and more accepting than the other white kids, which was my inspiration for creating Marjani Washington in Little Ragdoll.

And yet, when I saw the blackface scenes in context, I wasn’t offended or angry at all. As I researched the history of this now-discontinued performance style, I gained a greater understanding of its proper historical context.

The use of blackface in The Jazz Singer stems from minstrel shows, and as such is separate from that of white actors playing African–Americans (a subject for a whole other post!). Depending on context and intent, these performances could be positive, neutral, or perpetuate ugly, racist stereotypes.

There were definitely performers whose characters represented, e.g., oversexed people, pathological liars, thieves, lazy workers, easily-spooked cowards, and buffoons, but there were also plenty of other ethnic and racial stereotypes in the same era.

Other stock characters which would never be allowed today included drunken Irishmen, money-hungry Jewish pawnbrokers, and bumbling Italian immigrants. In the context of the era, most people wouldn’t have considered it unacceptably racist and offensive.

We can’t judge other eras’ standards of acceptability based upon our own. For example, it’s like nails on a chalkboard when I see a woman referred to as Mrs. Husband’s Full Name, but that was considered a married woman’s proper, respectable title. Most people never questioned that custom.

After minstrel shows declined in popularity, blackface moved to vaudeville. In Al Jolson’s case, it was a way of exposing white audiences to blues, ragtime, and jazz. This was an era when people “knew their place,” and as such typically wouldn’t know about that kind of music.

Blackface was also a way for him to step into a different persona, Gus, who was smarter than his white masters. He subtly poked fun at the idea of white supremacy by frequently helping them out of problems they’d created themselves, and being wily and wise-cracking.

In the 1926 Vitaphone short A Plantation Act, he performs three songs and pleasantly addresses his audience. It’s so matter-of-fact, with zero maliciousness or intended racism.

Blackface is integral to the story of The Jazz Singer. It wouldn’t be the same story or “a lot better,” as Rap Critic and his SJW girlfriend insisted, if the blackface were absent. It lets Jack Robin combine the Jewish cantorial tradition with modern jazz, letting out the anguished cry of both peoples in an impassioned prayer.

For the entire story, Jack has also been hiding from himself, running away from his roots, with a de-Judaized name, a radical break from his family and hometown, and blackface. He becomes a different person in blackface, with greater artistic freedom. Jakie Rabinowitz couldn’t do that.

In the climactic penultimate scene, his heart, soul, and identity are finally laid bare, in spite of his attempts to hide his origins. He releases the cry of “a jazz singer—singing to his God.”

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part II (What inspired the story)

1

Samson Raphaelson (30 March 1894–16 July 1983) was the writer to whom we owe The Jazz Singer. A native New Yorker, he attended the University of Illinois and worked as a journalist and ad writer after graduation. His dream was to become a published short story writer.

When he was a successful ad executive in NYC, he wrote a short story based on Al Jolson’s early life, “The Day of Atonement.” It was published in Everybody’s Magazine in January 1922.

His secretary encouraged him to rework it as a play, and showed him a play manuscript so he could see the style needed. She said he’d dictated more than that in two hours yesterday, and volunteered to dictate over the weekend.

By Sunday evening, they’d produced a complete draft of a play, The Jazz Singer. The play débuted by Broadway’s Fulton Theatre (razed in 1982) on 14 September 1925. Between the Fulton and Cort Theatres, it gave 303 performances, till 5 June 1926.

A 1927 revival by the Century Theatre ran for 16 performances.

Raphaelson got the idea on 25 April 1917, when he saw 30-year-old Al Jolson in the musical Robinson Crusoe, Jr., in Champaign, IL. He was struck by how Jolson sounded not like a jazz singer, but a cantor. Raphaelson also knew Jolson’s dad was a Lower East Side cantor.

Raphaelson’s story is about a young man who breaks from his religious roots to become a jazz singer, with a conflict between father and son about the proper usage of God-given talents.

Nine-year-old Jakie Rabinowitz breaks his gang’s code by not responding to the taunts of an Irish boy from a rival gang. Because he didn’t answer to the anti-Semitic insults, another member of his gang, Joe, beats him to a pulp. Jakie is so angry, he spews the same anti-Semitic insults at Joe.

At home, Cantor Rabinowitz (of Hester Street Synagogue) beats him too, after he says he doesn’t want to become a cantor. His Hebrew school teacher also beats him.

Cantor Rabinowitz agrees to a compromise, in which Jakie will sing in shul on Shabbos and the High Holy Days, while working as a ragtime singer the rest of the time. But when Jakie neglects his religious duties, his dad kicks him out.

Jakie reinvents himself as Jack Robin and begins building a successful musical career. He falls in love with a Gentile dancer, Amy Prentiss, the daughter of a Boston lawyer. Jack hides his Jewish origins out of fear of rejection, and this inner turmoil affects his singing, as does the alcohol he’s begun imbibing.

When Jack finally tells the truth, they get engaged. His parents are horrified he’s intermarrying.

As Yom Kippur approaches, Mrs. Rabinowitz asks him to attend services, the same night Jack’s Broadway show opens. Before he dies, Cantor Rabinowitz begs his wife to get Jack to chant Kol Nidre.

In Act I of the play, Jack Robin visits his parents on his dad’s 60th birthday. His dad is an Orthodox cantor on the Lower East Side, from a long line of cantors. Needless to say, Cantor Rabinowitz highly disapproves of his son’s career as a blackface jazz singer.

After a fight, Jack is kicked out.

In Act II, Jack gets ready for his Broadway début, which he hopes will majorly launch his career. Word is relayed to Jack that his dad has fallen very ill, but he refuses to leave rehearsals.

In Act III, Jack visits his parents’ home before the show, only to find his dad has been taken to hospital. This differs from the film, where Cantor Rabinowitz remains at home the entire time.

Now it’s up to Jack to decide if the show must go on above all else, or if he’ll go back to shul to chant Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur.

The star of the show was renowned entertainer George Jessel (3 April 1898–23 May 1981). Among his many claims to fame was being one of Broadway’s most popular leading men. He, not Al Jolson, was originally slated to star in the film adaptation. More on that in future posts.

The cast list for the play is much larger than that of the film, though it’s possible all these characters are also in the film but are just unnamed. There are a number of background characters and extras amid the main players.

George Albert Jessel